Acne basics

Blackheads vs whiteheads

Discover the different types of spots associated with acne and what causes them.

What is acne and how can I prevent it?

Acne is a very common skin condition that occurs when excessive sebum and dead skin cells block pores and subsequently become infected. The condition affects around 85% of 12 to 24 year-olds resulting in spotty, oily skin. There are six main types of spots caused by acne: blackheads and whiteheads (non inflammatory) and pustules, papules, nodules and cysts (inflammatory).

What causes congestion?

Just beneath the surface of your skin are sebaceous glands. These are attached to your hair follicles and produce an oily substance, called sebum, which keeps your hair and skin lubricated. 

Acne is caused when too much sebum is produced. This can happen for a number of reasons: hormonal fluctuations, an unhealthy diet, a lack of nutrients, an irregular skincare routine or using incorrect skincare products for example. This excess sebum mixes with dead skin cells, dirt and sweat and forms a plug. Otherwise harmless bacteria, found on the skin, can then contaminate these blocked follicles causing spots.

You can usually tell if you have congested skin if you feel it is rough and bumpy when you touch it. You might also notice the appearance of blackheads and whiteheads.

What’s the difference between blackheads and whiteheads?

Blackheads – also known as open comedones – look like little black dots on your skin. They occur when the pore stays open and is filled with oil and p. acnes bacteria (the most common bacteria that leads to acne).


A chemical reaction occurs where melanin (the dark pigment made by cells in the skin) reacts with oxygen in the air, turning the pore a black color. Contrary to popular belief, blackheads are not caused by trapped dirt. Blackheads are usually found on the back, shoulders and face and are considered a mild form of acne. Squeezing them can make matters worse.


If the congested pore stays below, but close to the surface of, the skin and it is light in color it is called a Whitehead.  They develop when the follicles beneath your skin become filled with bacteria. As the blocked pores are not exposed to the air, they remain white in color. 


Whiteheads can be caused by a number of reasons including puberty, hereditary factors, stress, hormonal changes, diet and lifestyle. Like blackheads, they tend to appear on the back, shoulders and face. Tempting as it may seem it is never a good idea to squeeze them. In fact the more they can be left untouched, the better.

How can I prevent acne?

The most important thing to do is to keep your face clean to prevent the dead skin cells mixing with the excess sebum. Wash your face twice a day with a mild soap then pat your skin dry with a clean towel. Don’t overwash your skin as that can actually lead to more pimples. Choose oil-free products and acne-fighting foundation – and make sure you remove them at the end of the day. 


Tempting as it may be, try not to touch your face – and definitely don’t squeeze your spots. When you pop a pimple, you invite bacteria into your skin. The bacteria can make the redness and swelling worse or even lead to scarring over time.

If possible, keep your hair off your face to prevent forehead acne, and only use water based gels and sprays on your hair.